After being the sole caregiver for someone, recovering from their death includes one key aspect: Learning to shift your mental focus back from you and them, to recognizing a new “us” which includes a different person. Often when you are in the throes of caregiving, your loved one’s needs can be so pronounced and overwhelming that you are totally focused on them – with ideally a few slivers of time set aside for self-care to help you survive.
But when that phase of life ended for me, I found that I needed to shift back to a more appropriate pattern of sharing, to where I think about life in terms of this new “us.” After years or even decades of dedicated caring, that change can be hard and the resulting relationship can feel almost unnatural at first – or at least it is for me.
But I am learning that with a lot of support and love and prayer, I can begin to see the way ahead. Yes friends, you read that right. I really did use the present tense a couple of times there.
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Things are happening fast in my life. As I write this it is 4 am Thursday morning and I have been awake for about an hour with ideas running through my head that I need to get down on paper. I am reminded of a poster I saw once that described a writer as:
“…a specialized type of alchemist that can transmute caffeine into words.”
Ain’t it the truth.
When Janet died, the post I wrote as a tribute and announcement said that the journey we are on together isn’t over. While my caregiving duties are done (for now at least – but you never really know, do you?) there was still the whole question of, “What does recovery look like?”
There are obviously many parts of that question, and one that I talked about in the recent past was Preparing for Reentry…. Carrying on with that thought, I need to remember that while it is impossible for me to get back to who I was, and how things were “before” – I still need to figure out how to go about assembling a new normal for my life.
In the final analysis, life does move on. Moreover, life was an ongoing string of catastrophes and miracles before “it” happened and there is little reason to assume that life will be any different now. The unfortunate truth is that life doesn’t come with a ration card for bad things, so that once you get your card punched, you can be assured that nothing else bad will ever happen to you. In the end, the truth remains that pain and joy are the two sides of a coin, and both sides of the coin are the same size.
Well this week, I read something that partially answered some questions, and partially gave me a bunch of new questions to ask – learning is like that. The article in question was primarily about the differences in the rates at which women remarry after the loss of a spouse, versus the rates at which men remarry in the same circumstances. While I obviously can’t speak to the veracity of the conclusions that the female author made about the reaction of women, I can say that when talking about men she “hit the nail right on the head.”
The one thing that was obvious from the outset was that widowers remarry at a rate about twice that of widows. While part of this discrepancy can be attributed to the well-documented fact that men die earlier than women do, even that statistic is changing as more and more women are dying early like their male peers. The author, therefore, attributes this significantly different rate to the fact that men and women experience the loss of a spouse in fundamentally different ways. The basic issue, she asserted, was that women experience the loss in a relational way. In other words, they miss the intimacy, the friendship, the sharing – in short, all the various aspects of a marital relationship.
By contrast, while men do miss the relationship – I know I sure do – their primary experience is different. My experience was, in the words of the author, one of an amputation. Boy, did that point resonate with me! For a very long time, even before Janet died, I had felt that way but didn’t know how to verbalize it. I felt as though I woke up one morning and part of me had been cut off and was missing.
Since Janet died, I have desperately needed someone to fill that void. But let me quickly add that the result was not simply an exercise to find a “warm body” to fill a social niche in my home, or empty spot in my bed. Human beings are not anonymous interchangeable parts. However, this point isn’t an introduction into a discussion of the “number of fish in the sea.” Rather, as with all matters in life, the lady and I need to remember that in addition to us, there is another party involved in the process – The One who created us, and Who, by the way, knows our needs much better than we do.
I have had relationships where I found the “right one” on my own and they were unmitigated trainwrecks – though God has been able to do some wonderful stuff with the resulting bits of wreckage. Then there was the relationship which God put together and it lasted 35 years. Although it wasn’t perfect, and I have been writing for a year and a half about the problems we had to face over the last three and a half decades, it was a good relationship that has prepared me magnificently for whatever God decides comes next.
Still, I don’t need to depend on a secular psychological paper to understand these feelings. Consider the creation story given in Genesis. God creates everything from light to insects, and after each act of creation, pronounces His latest work “Good.” But surprisingly, in the midst of all that goodness, there is one thing that He says is not good:
“It is not good for man to be alone…”
In response, God created a woman so that he would no longer be alone. Though there are obvious exceptions, from that day to this, men tend to look for a woman to fill in the gaps in their lives, and to be their partner and companion.
But to me, the really interesting thing is that even if you don’t accept the idea that Genesis is a true accounting of creation and consider it to be just another example of the ancients cobbling together a myth to explain the world around them, the point still works because you have to explain why that line is in the story. You have to ask yourself, “What was it that the ancients were seeing that they felt compelled to explain?”
The point is that regardless of whether God was explaining what He was doing, or the ancients were trying to explain a world they didn’t understand, men have been experiencing the sensation of incompleteness and longing that I am now experiencing, for untold millennia – an idea that I find strangely comforting. But is it really so strange?
When you are starting the recovery process, it is comforting to look at the mess you are in and see that what you are going through is survivable. I can’t tell you how many notes and comments I have gotten in the past year or so that basically said, “What you are going through is terrible, but seeing you make your way through the mess gives me hope that I can make it through too.”
One of the interesting side effects of the writing I do is that it gets me into the habit of being more open than some would say is “smart.” But perhaps, honesty is better than being smart – or at least smart in the sense that the naysayers mean. From here our conversation could go many different directions, so perhaps it is better to just let it lie, and see where things go next week.
In Christ, Amen ☩
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A prayer for guys who are feeling incomplete…
“Blessed are You, Lord God, King of the Universe. It is right that I should at all times and in all circumstances bless You for the perfection of Your design and plan. But today I want to bless You especially for the perfection that You are bringing to my imperfect life. Thank You for the miraculous completion that You bring to the broken, empty parts of me. Amen.”